Posted by: Michael Dewalt | October 23, 2008


(Post by Joel R. Beeke)

Trinitarian framework

Through a fourth sweeping principle, namely, a Trinitarian framework for the doctrine of faith and assurance, Calvin spurs forward the doubt-prone believer.  As surely as the election of the Father must prevail over the works of Satan, the righteousness of the Son over the sinfulness of the believer, and the assuring witness of the Spirit over the soul’s infirmities, so surely faith shall and must conquer unbelief.

Calvin’s arrangement of Book III of the Institutes reveals the movement of the grace of faith from God to man and man to God.  The grace of faith is from the Father, in the Son, and through the Spirit, by which, in turn, the believer is brought into fellowship with the Son by the Spirit, and consequently is reconciled to the Father.

For Calvin, a complex set of factors establishes assurance, not the least of which is the Father’s election and preservation in Christ.  Hence he writes that “predestination duly considered does not shake faith, but rather affords the best confirmation of it,”  especially when viewed in the context of calling:  “The firmness of our election is joined to our calling [and] is another means of establishing our assurance.  For all whom [Christ] receives, the Father is said to have entrusted and committed to Him to keep to eternal life.”
Decretal election is a sure foundation for preservation and assurance; election is not coldly causal.  As Gordon Keddie notes: “Election is never seen, in Calvin, in a purely deterministic light, in which God…is viewed as ‘a frightening idol’ of ‘mechanistic deterministic causality’ and Christian experience is reduced to either cowering passivity or frantic activism, while waiting some ‘revelation’ of God’s hidden decree for one’s self.  For Calvin, as indeed in Scripture, election does not threaten, but rather undergirds, the certainty of salvation.”

Such a foundation is possible only in a christocentric context; hence Calvin’s constant accent on Christ as the mirror of election “wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election.”   Election turns the believer’s eyes from his hopeless inability to meet any conditions of salvation to focus on the hope of Jesus Christ as God’s pledge of undeserved love and mercy.

Through union with Christ “the assurance of salvation becomes real and effective as the assurance of election.”   Christ becomes ours in fulfillment of God’s determination to redeem and resurrect us.  Consequently, we ought not to think of Christ as “standing afar off, and not dwelling in us.”   Since Christ is for us, truly contemplating Him is seeing Him form in us what He desires to give us, Himself above all.  God has made Himself “little in Christ,” Calvin states, so that we might comprehend and flee to Christ alone who can pacify our consciences.   Faith must begin, rest, and end in Christ.  “True faith is so contained in Christ, that it neither knows, nor desires to know, anything beyond Him,” Calvin says.   Therefore, “we ought not to separate Christ from ourselves or ourselves from Him.”   Union with Christ merges objective and subjective assurance; to look to Christ alone for assurance means also to look to ourselves in Christ as His body.  As Willis-Watkins notes, “It would be entirely hypothetical for faith to focus on ourselves apart from Christ—and it would be entirely hypothetical for faith to focus on Christ apart from his body….  Assurance of salvation is a derivative self-knowledge, whose focus remains on Christ as united to his body, the Church of which we are members.”

In this christological manner, Calvin reduces the distance between God’s objective decree of election and the believer’s subjective lack of assurance that he is elect.  For Calvin, election answers, rather than raises, the question of assurance.  In Christ, the believer sees his election; in the gospel, he hears of his election. Nevertheless, Calvin is acutely aware that a person may think that the Father has entrusted him to Christ when such is not the case.  It is one thing to underscore Christ’s task in the Trinitarian salvific economy as the recipient and guardian of the elect; the center, author, and foundation of election; the guarantee, promise, and mirror of the believer’s election and salvation.  But it is quite another to know how to inquire about whether a person has been joined to Christ by a true faith.  Many appear to be Christ’s who are strangers to Him.  Says Calvin: “It daily happens that those who seemed to be Christ’s fall away from him again….  Such persons never cleaved to Christ with the heartfelt trust in which certainty of salvation has, I say, been established for us.”

Calvin never preached to console his flock into false assurance of salvation.   Many scholars minimize Calvin’s emphasis on the need for a subjective, experiential realization of faith and election by referring to Calvin’s practice of approaching his congregation as saved hearers.  They misunderstand.  Though Calvin practiced what he called “a judgment of charity” (i.e., addressing as saved those church members who maintain a commendable, external lifestyle), he also frequently asserted that only a minority receive the preached Word with saving faith.  He says: “For though all, without exception, to whom God’s Word is preached, are taught, yet scarce one in ten so much as tastes it; yea, scarce one in a hundred profits to the extent of being enabled, thereby, to proceed in a right course to the end.”

For Calvin, much that resembles faith lacks a saving character.  He thus speaks of unformed faith, implicit faith, the preparation of faith, temporary faith, an illusion of faith, a false show of faith, shadow-types of faith, transitory faith, and faith under a cloak of hypocrisy. Self-deception is a real possibility, Calvin says.  Because the reprobate often feel something much like the faith of the elect,  self-examination is essential.  He writes: “Let us learn to examine ourselves, and to search whether those interior marks by which God distinguishes his children from strangers belong to us, viz., the living root of piety and faith.”   Happily, the truly saved are delivered from self-deception through proper examination directed by the Holy Spirit.  Calvin says: “In the meantime, the faithful are taught to examine themselves with solicitude and humility, lest carnal security insinuate itself, instead of the assurance of faith.”

Even in self-examination, Calvin emphasizes Christ.  He says we must examine ourselves to see if we are placing our trust in Christ alone, for this is the fruit of biblical experience.  Anthony Lane says that for Calvin self-examination is not so much “Am I trusting in Christ?” as it is “Am I trusting in Christ?”   Self-examination must always direct us to Christ and His promise.  It must never be done apart from the help of the Holy Spirit, who alone can shed light upon Christ’s saving work in the believer’s soul.  Apart from Christ, the Word, and the Spirit, Calvin says, “if you contemplate yourself, that is sure damnation.”

Thus, Calvin’s line of reasoning proceeds like this:  (1) The purpose of election embraces salvation.  (2) The elect are not chosen for anything in themselves, but only in Christ.  (3) Since the elect are in Christ, the assurance of their election and salvation can never be found in themselves or in the Father apart from Christ.  (4) Rather, their assurance is to be found in Christ; hence communion with Him is vital.

The question remains, however:  How do the elect enjoy such communion, and how does that produce assurance?  Calvin’s answer is pneumatological:  The Holy Spirit applies Christ and His benefits to the hearts and lives of guilty, elect sinners, through which they are assured by saving faith that Christ belongs to them and they to Him.  The Holy Spirit especially confirms within them the reliability of God’s promises in Christ.  Thus, personal assurance is never divorced from the election of the Father, the redemption of the Son, the application of the Spirit, and the instrumental means of saving faith.

The Holy Spirit has an enormous role in the application of redemption, Calvin says.  As personal comforter, seal, and earnest, the Holy Spirit assures the believer of his adoption: “The Spirit of God gives us such a testimony, that when he is our guide and teacher our spirit is made sure of the adoption of God; for our mind of itself, without the preceding testimony of the Spirit, could not convey to us this assurance.”   The Holy Spirit’s work underlies all assurance of salvation, without detracting from the role of Christ, for the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ who assures the believer by leading him to Christ and His benefits, and by working out those benefits within him.

The unity of Christ and the Spirit has sweeping implications for the doctrine of assurance.  Most recent scholars minimize Calvin’s emphasis on the necessity of the Spirit’s work in assuring a believer of God’s promises.  The ground of assurance supposedly is God’s promises, in Christ, and/or in the Word of God, whereas the cause of assurance is the Spirit, who works it in the heart.  Cornelis Graafland argues, however, that this distinction is too simplistic, since the Spirit always works as the Spirit of Christ.  Hence the objective and subjective elements in assurance cannot be so readily separated;  objective salvation in Christ is bound to subjective sealing by the Spirit.  Graafland concludes that “Christ in and through His Spirit is the ground of our faith.”

Moreover, for Calvin, a believer’s objective reliance upon God’s promises as the primary ground for assurance must be subjectively sealed by the Holy Spirit for true assurance.  The reprobate may claim God’s promises without experiencing the feeling (sensus) or consciousness of those promises.  The Spirit often works in the reprobate, but in an inferior manner.  Calvin says the minds of the reprobate may be momentarily illumined so that they may seem to have a beginning of faith; nevertheless, they “never receive anything but a confused awareness of grace.”

On the other hand, the elect are regenerated with incorruptible seed.   They receive subjective benefits that the reprobate never taste.  They alone receive the promises of God as truth in the inward parts; they alone receive the testimony that can be called “the enlightening of the Spirit”; they alone receive experiential, intuitive knowledge of God as He offers Himself to them in Christ.    Spirit-worked faith in the promises of God effects union with Christ.   Calvin says the elect alone come to “be ravished and wholly kindled to love God”; they are “borne up to heaven itself” and “admitted to the most hidden treasures of God.”   “The Spirit, strictly speaking, seals forgiveness of sins in the elect alone, so that they apply it by special faith to their own use.”   The elect alone come to know special faith and a special inward testimony.

According to Heribert Schutzeichel, a Roman Catholic theologian, Calvin’s emphasis on special faith and a special testimony is reminiscent of the Council of Trent’s insistence that assurance is always revealed in a special manner.   For the Council of Trent, however, assurance is special and rare; for Calvin, assurance is special and normative, for it is part of the essence of faith.   For Trent, assurance is separate from the Word; for Calvin, assurance is always involved with the Word.  The Spirit’s assuring testimony does not add to the Word through some mystical vision or audible voice;  rather, it accompanies the Word.  The Spirit’s seal is a personal testimony, by means of the gospel, that God’s promises are for the believer personally.  Says Calvin: “Assurance…is a thing that is above the capacity of the human mind, it is the part of the Holy Spirit to confirm within us what God promises in his Word.”   The reprobate never experience such assurance, for they never taste the union of the objective truth of God’s promise and the subjective sealing of the Spirit.

Ultimately, however, when distinguishing the elect from the reprobate, Calvin speaks more about what the Spirit does in us than what Christ does for us, for here the line of demarcation is sharper.  He speaks much of inward experience, of feeling, of enlightenment, of perception, even of “violent emotion.”   Though aware of the dangers of excessive introspection, Calvin also recognizes that the promises of God are sufficient only when they are brought by the Spirit within the scope, experience, and obedience of faith.

To summarize Calvin’s position, all three members of the Trinity are involved in the believer’s assurance of faith.  Moreover, the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit are complementary.  When Calvin replies to Pighius that “Christ is a thousand testimonies to me,” he is saying that Christ is an overwhelming, foundational, and primary source of assurance for him precisely because of the Spirit’s application of Christ and His benefits to him.  Again, when Berkouwer says that Calvin’s Institutes never tire “of repeating the warning against every attempt at gaining assurance apart from Christ and His cross,”  this must be understood in terms of the work of the Spirit, since no one can ever be assured of Christ without the Spirit.   The Holy Spirit reveals to the believer through His Word that God is a well-disposed Father, and enables him to embrace Christ’s promises by faith.


  1. Thanks for the post - is there any chance of some referencing? I’d really like to know which translation of the Institutes you used.
    Best wishes, Eloise


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